Campus News

DIFCON12 explores controversial topics to change students’ thinking

Jason Young, associate professor of history, leads a "difficult conversation" about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Photo: Teresa Miller

By SUE WUETCHER

Published March 7, 2016

“In truth, there’s no magic, just the commitment to getting to know others across differences and the skills to have difficult, but successful, conversations.”
Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion

It’s a quiet Monday night. Midterms are looming and Ben is nearing that crucial decision on “The Bachelor.”

Yet about 20 students fill the Lehman classroom in the Governors residence hall, listening intently as history professor Jason Young talks about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the backlash the movement has engendered.

Addressing BLM critics’ assertion that “all lives matter,” Young told students that black lives are like the canaries that live in a coal mine: When they no longer matter, the value of all human lives is threatened.

Young’s “excellent” presentation “chronologically organized and defined the #BlackLivesMatter movement in a way that was very easy to understand,” says Micah Oliver, a student in the School of Management who attended the session.

Young “hit a home run,” agrees Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion.

“There was a lot of energy in the room, but the atmosphere was relaxed,” Miller says of Young’s talk, the inaugural offering in DIFCON12. “You could almost hear students digging deep to offer responses that were insightful and personal.”

Adds Oliver: “I was comfortable sharing my opinion and thoughts in the session comprised of my peers, faculty, staff and even President Tripathi. It didn't feel like a lecture; it really felt like a conversation — one that I could be an equal part of.

“This very difficult conversation was facilitated in a way that gave everyone an equally important voice on the subject and encouraged questions,” he says.

Young says he was deeply impressed by the quality of the comments and questions from the students.

“This was a real conversation, not a classroom lecture,” he says. “And although the issues we discussed were highly controversial, everyone was open, honest and candid, even while being respectful and interested in other opinions. I learned a great deal from the students.”

And that’s the point of DIFCON12, a series of small-group discussions on provocative topics led by UB faculty members that aims to engage students in “difficult conversations” and change the way they think about these subjects.

The mini-lectures take place from 6:30-8 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday for six weeks — excluding spring break — usually in a student resident hall. Walter Hakala, assistant professor of English, talked about “Teaching Islam from an Outsider’s Perspective” in the second presentation in the series last Wednesday.

The series will conclude on May 2 with a wrap-up session, “DIFCON12: Lessons Learned,” featuring all the faculty facilitators.

The idea for the DIFCON12 series originated from discussions Miller had with students during a listening tour of residence halls last semester.

“I had lots of conversations about ‘failed cultural encounters’ that underscored the need to equip students with the tools to have difficult conversations,” Miller says. “As I explained to students on the listening tour: ‘We bring you here from the four corners of the earth, the nation and the State of New York, and put you in close living-and-learning situations. Then we expect the magic to happen.’

“In truth, there’s no magic,” she says, “just the commitment to getting to know others across differences and the skills to have difficult, but successful, conversations.”

DIFCON12 was conceived as small-group experiences “in which students have safe spaces to address provocative issues and controversial topics,” Miller says. “In a smaller setting, with faculty facilitation, students are more likely to take risks and be candid.”

The faculty facilitators for DIFCON12 were suggested by students and selected “for their ability to successfully engage students in discussions of controversial topics,” she adds.

The series, sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, continues tonight with a discussion of “What Does Diversity Mean to You?” facilitated by Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah, clinical assistant professor of organization and human resources, School of Management.

The remainder of the lineup:

  • March 9: Carl Nightingale, Transnational Studies, “Going to School in a Segregated City,” Lehman classroom, Governors.
  • March 21: Rebecca French, Law, “Off to College, But How do you Pack up your Religion?” Hadley Village Community Building lounge.
  • March 23: Raechele Pope and Nathan Daun-Barnett, Educational Leadership & Policy, “Race and Privilege on Campus,” Hadley Village Community Building lounge.
  • March 28: John Jennings, Art, “Disturbing the Peace: The Black Artist and Public Discourse,” Greiner Hall, C-Wing classroom.
  • March 30: Cynthia Wu, associate professor, Transnational Studies, “The Myth of the Asian American Model Minority,” Greiner Hall, C-Wing classroom.
  • April 4: Amy Bisantz, Industrial & Systems Engineering, “Why aren’t there More Women in STEM Fields?” Lehman classroom, Governors.
  • April 6: Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, Geography, “Contemporary Ethnic Geographies in America and Spaces of Fear,” Lehman classroom, Governors.
  • April 11: Teresa Miller, Equity & Inclusion/Law and Andrew Stott, Undergraduate Education/English, “Unpacking and Negotiating Privilege,” Hadley Village Community Building lounge.
  • April 13: Amy Reynolds, Counseling, School & Educational Psychology, and Sharon Mitchell, Counseling Services, “Why are Difficult Conversations so Difficult?” Hadley Village Community Village lounge.
  • May 2: All facilitators, “DIFCON12: Lessons Learned,” Student Union Theater.